How Wolf Totem director overcame China's blacklist

French director Jean-Jacques Annaud was persona non grata for a film about Tibet for years, but all that changed when he was approached to make his latest film

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 April, 2015, 11:32am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 01 April, 2015, 5:11pm

Jean-Jacques Annaud becomes animated when he talks of Wolf Totem, his film about Chen Zhen, a young man sent to Inner Mongolia to teach local people the Chinese language during the Cultural Revolution.

Shot on location with a cast composed mainly of Mongolian and Chinese actors and actresses, the film is based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Jiang Rong (the pen name of Lu Jiamin). In the book, the transplanted Beijinger (played in the film by Feng Shaofeng) comes to learn much from the Mongols and the wolves of the grasslands, such as the fragility of the environment.

The book resonated with the French filmmaker. "As a young man I was sent to Cameroon, also [like Wolf Totem's protagonist] in 1967 - not to teach language, but cinema. So I immediately related to the book's character. And the relationship with the animal, that's what I consider the essential balance between animal and man," he says.

Annaud had made two previous films with strong nature-and-man themes: The Bear (1988) and Two Brothers (2004), and Wolf Totem's story was one he wanted to put on film. But Annaud assumed it would be a pipe dream as he had been blacklisted by the Chinese government since 1997, when Seven Years in Tibet, his film based on Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer's account of his experiences in Tibet between 1944 and 1951, was banned on the mainland.

Seemingly from out of the blue, however, representatives from the Beijing Forbidden City Film company approached him in Paris about making the film. "I said in the past I have not been welcomed in China, but they smiled and said, 'We're changing. We are practical people, we need you,'" he recalls about the 2007 conversation that got him involved with Wolf Totem's production.

The following year, Annaud went to Mongolia with Jiang, who was a consultant on the film, and his friend, Basen Zhabu, who plays the elderly Mongol leader Bilig in it. "The two of them were so fascinated by the place that they never stopped dreaming or writing about it," the Frenchman says. "We went to the place where Jiang picked the little wolf, where he planted his yurt. As we were driving, we shared ideas and anecdotes not necessarily in the book that are now in the film."

Annaud says Jiang was so passionate about his memories that he would stop the vehicle about every five kilometres and get him to experience Inner Mongolia first hand. "You have to eat this grass. The grass here is what the sheep would eat in that period," he recalls Jiang telling him. "Then we would have garlic flowers or white onion flowers, or he would get me to climb a mountain to see what he saw in those days. He was very emotional. It was a wonderful way for me to be immersed in their world.

"Jiang was not too worried about the main storyline, but more about the details of Mongol life, that it had to be as close to what he witnessed in those days, their lifestyle, costume, behaviour, language," Annaud says. "As my mentor, Francois Truffaut, said, 'There's no good movie without a good documentary.' Movies are meant to entertain, but I like it when it has strong roots in credibility and authenticity."

The Frenchman says that production work in Inner Mongolia went smoothly, despite some physical difficulties encountered. "There were many challenges in filming because of the remoteness of the area and extreme climate conditions. It would get as cold as minus 35 degrees Celsius so if your hands were exposed to air, they would start bleeding; and then in the summer it was 25 degrees [Celsius], but there were loads of mosquitoes. The most amazing thing was that no one complained. We were only nine French people, and 500 Chinese crew and we got along amicably."

It undoubtedly helped that the producers and the director possess similar ideas about the natural environment. "This group was environmentally conscious, which was not the image I had of China. They were intense on protecting the environment and air quality. I never doubted their commitment. When you live three weeks in a yurt with everyone, and drink too much spirits, you know what people think," Annaud says with a smile.

The Frenchman knows he was not the producers' first choice to direct the film, however. A few Chinese filmmakers were approached for the job first, including Zhang Yimou. But they all declined to helm the project, saying they didn't have much experience dealing with animals, let alone wild ones - unlike Annaud.

"The producers didn't know how to do this kind of movie. They understood it would be complicated but didn't know how to approach it. So they listened and left me to do what I considered needed to be done," he says.

Even before the screenplay was written, Annaud arranged for four-week-old wolf cubs to be reared and trained for the film. Since there were no trained Mongol wolves available, and few of the animals are left in Inner Mongolia, they were acquired in Harbin and trained by a Scottish trainer. One of the most striking scenes in the film involves a pack of wolves chasing a herd of horses at night. It captures the tension between the horses fleeing for their lives, while the wolves are determined to satiate their hunger.

Annaud stresses the importance of catching the wolves' expressions. "We would have the wolf jump on the back of a fake horse that had the smell of sausage in the tail. And the shots we had, the wolves had killing eyes like an assassin. They had these expressions because they wanted to get the meat."

For him, getting the wolves' instinctive reactions was crucial to the film. "I wanted to get into the minds of the wolves. It's not an aesthetic judgment. I had to go with the real animal to get the right psychology. There was no other way around it. Here we have a movie where 98.5 per cent of it is real - only the scenes where there is contact were not real."

After it opened on the mainland on the first day of the Lunar New Year, ethnic Mongol writer Guo Xuebo ( Wolf in the Desert) criticised the film, saying that wolves are not emblematic for Mongolians and that Wolf Totem goes against the history of his ancestors and culture.

For his part, Annaud stresses that many research consultants were employed. He says he was so intent on getting the cultural details right that Ankhnyam Ragchaa, the ethnic Mongolian actress who played protagonist Chen Zhen's love interest, had to be dubbed in post-production as her accent differed from that which is specific to the area where the story of Wolf Totem takes place.

At the same time, the director admits to having exercised some artistic licence in adapting the book's story to the screen. "For example, the romance between Chen Zhen and the woman was not in the book. But I asked Jiang, 'As a young man of 21, how can you be in Inner Mongolia for seven years and not do anything with a pretty Mongol girl?"

"He said, 'I didn't, but my friends did,'" Annaud says with a laugh. "He told me couples would get together, hiding in a herd of sheep - so that scene is from Jiang. It's the same as when I was in Cameroon - there were a lot of appealing women there. I don't know any guys who were not tempted. It's the universality of human behaviour."

Wolf Totem opens on April 2